Danny Peters · Tuesday March 5, 2013
From the Arizona desert to the bright lights of Sin City, NASCAR’s West Coast road trip is in full swing as the heart and soul of its season, an intermediate track, now lies dead ahead. There’s plenty to get to, here in between races two and three so let’s not waste any time…
ONE: Vegas is Not the Be All and End All Race You’ll be Told It Is:
In the next few days you’re going to read a lot of articles about the importance of Las Vegas Motor Speedway to the continued development of the Gen-6 cars. Much will be made about this being the first trip to a cookie cutter track — the mile-and-a-half circuits that make up over a third of the Sprint Cup schedule — and much will be written about this is a race so important it might just bring about world peace.
On the surface, this is indeed true: LVMS will be a crucial test of the Gen-6 car, but far from a season defining one. Should one major team or driver find themselves a little off time or set-up wise, you can be sure things will be different by the time the circus swings through Charlotte in late May. And by the time we race on the first cookie-cutter circuit in the 2013 Chase, the situation may be radically different from the results we see Sunday.
I’m not trying to belittle the significance of this weekend at all, but it’s ludicrously early to make blanket judgments on the back of one race and that’s what we’ll see leading up to and in the aftermath of Sunday’s race. NASCAR is by definition a week-by-week sport, with the soap opera of a race and subsequent storylines dominating the news coverage. All I’m saying here is if your driver (or team) doesn’t run as well as you hoped, don’t rule out his or her chances for the season. There are a lot of smart folks in the team shops ready to fix issues in short order whatever the results – positive or negative – this weekend.
TWO: Truex Jr., not Bowyer, Gets Off to a Sluggish Start in 2013:
In the past few years a second place finish in the season standings has not been a positive thing when viewed through the prism of the following season’s results. A case in point was Carl Edwards in 2012 who neither won nor made the Chase. In 2011, it was 2010 season first loser Denny Hamlin who struggled, won a solitary race and made the Chase without ever being a factor in the playoffs. In 2010, it was Mark Martin (who was second in 2009 with 5 wins) who struggled and so it goes.
So the conventional thinking in 2013 would be that Clint Bowyer would be the driver that would struggle right out of the gate, but an 11th place at Daytona and a credible sixth place finish at Phoenix show Bowyer is ready to carry on as he left off—albeit not from a pugilistic point of view. Instead, it’s Bowyer’s teammate Martin Truex Jr. who has started off the season at glacial pace, at least points wise.
In the Great American race, Truex ran strongly until he started losing power with 25 laps to go ending up with a 24th place finish. Then on Sunday, an issue with the rear gear saw him go back to the garage before nursing his battered Toyota to a miserable 36th place finish. Momentum is often just an eight letter word rather than a solid indicator to future performance, so there’s no reason to suspect this will be the story for the NJ native in 2013. What is clear, though, is that a string of poor results (be they through bad luck, mechanical reasons or whatever) can affect drivers from a mental perspective. With that in mind, it was encouraging to see Truex remaining optimistic in his post-race comments.
“It’s great to see how fast we could get our car going,” said Truex. “We learned a bunch out there today that will definitely help us when we come back and I think it will help us next week at Vegas. It was a lot of fun out there today. I just wished the gear would have held up for us.”
THREE: The Word of the Moment – Relevancy:
This time last year in the second race of 2012 and under new head wrench Darian Grubb, it was Denny Hamlin who drove to Victory Lane, catapulting the Joe Gibbs Racing driver toward what was ultimately a solid season (5 wins, 1226 laps lead, made the Chase, 6th place finish). This year it was a morale boosting victory for Carl Edwards, also in his second race under new crew chief Jimmy Fennig, that got NASCAR Nation buzzing. With a long sapping streak of 70 winless races broken, it’s also worth noting that at Daytona, while he sat in his crash-damaged race car, awaiting repairs, Edwards told the world that he would be back for a win at Phoenix and so it proved. But it was a comment from Denny Hamlin that most resonated with me after we watched the backflip.
“I’m sure it’s a relief for someone like Carl,” said Hamlin. “He’s now relevant again, he really is and it’s a good sign for their race team for things to come.”
And relevant he is indeed, which is a good sign for the sport and a driver who, for the most part, does and says all the right things. Momentum can mean little in NASCAR given the schedule, but it doesn’t seem a stretch to say Edwards will parlay this rediscovered relevancy into a positive 2013. Edwards, unlike many, has a reach that goes beyond the sport. The guy had a walk on role in the Kiefer Sutherland show “24” – one of the true gems of television in this past decade, so that’s good enough for me.
More seriously, expect Edwards to be a factor again, not just this weekend but deep into the season. Relevancy counts folks, it really does.
FOUR: The World According to FOX SPORTS, so far:
I’ve made no secret over the years of my dislike of FOX’s bombastic, over-the-top coverage of our great sport. Their pre-planned story lines, over focus on a 40th place finishing driver (Danica in Phoenix) and general white noise makes the race watching experience hugely painful at times. So in the spirit of positivity, I’ve decided to list out some stuff I’ve enjoyed so far from our friends at FOX Sports.
I’ll start with perhaps the best “invention” in many a year – the gyro cam – which gives us a fresh, interesting insight into the sport and an even better sense on what it’s like in the driver’s seat. I particularly enjoyed the comparison between a lap at Daytona and a lap at Phoenix. I just hope they don’t give it a stupid name – we’ve been there with Digger, let’s not forget. Some other things I’ve enjoyed about FOX are the Crank it Up feature (where no-one talks and we can just listen to the mesmeric sounds of a race) and also the first lap where for the most part the announcers stay silent and let the pictures tell a story – now there’s a Monday morning production note that has as much chance of survival as an ice-cream in a volcano.
And finally the amusing, sheer irrelevancy of Jeff “Hollywood” Hammond, who on one level I kind of feel sorry for because it’s clear he doesn’t have a good role so they force fit weird segments with him standing in bizarre places or operating a touch screen really badly (when they have cameras in the car that do the job much better). You can only imagine the poor folks who pulled the demo together just screaming at him to use the system properly. Still, all that said, the Gyro-Cam is cool; let’s hope they use it appropriately.
FIVE: The Pastrana Sponsor Mystery:
In the last couple years as Travis Pastrana dipped his toe into the NASCAR waters, I’ve hoped that his impact would resonate far beyond the track walls and the garage into the more mainstream younger market which NASCAR so needs. This season I’m even more hopeful given he’s running a full Nationwide series slate.
After a solid start at Daytona (Pastrana finished a creditable tenth and ran upfront all day) and some great radio audio, an early evasive brush of the wall after a Johanna Long issue, all but finished his day before it really began with Pastrana winding up in 28th position. Now it’s natural Pastrana will have ups and downs – the NASCAR learning curve is as steep as it is treacherous – but the one factor that still amazes me is why he remains unsponsored. Prior to the year, Jack Roush made it clear as to his thoughts on the topic.
“I really try to find a partner that’s going to be there for the long term, you know, hopefully we’ll get a couple races and then we’ll find the partner that fits,” said Roush. “The search is still on for someone that fits, for a sponsor that looks at this car and says, ‘Yeah, that’s our guy.”
Well surely by now some company has thought, “Yeah, he’s the right guy.” So the real mystery is why his hood is still unadorned with a sponsor logo. I’m sure there are mitigating circumstances, but Pastrana should have been an easy sell. It’s something I’ll be following closely from here on out.
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